Take what you can from where you are
Jul26

Take what you can from where you are

I'm back in the lab! I just got back from a 3-month science writing internship and am back to my research gig as a fifth-year chemistry graduate student (yikes!). It actually feels good to be back. Don't get me wrong: I loved my internship. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. And I'm still looking forward to moving onto a career that doesn't involve working at the bench. But I'm excited about finishing what I started here in grad school, and finishing strong. A much-needed break The internship came at a really good time. Earlier this year I felt I was on the verge of burning out. My relationship with my research project was feeling pretty strained. The internship provided a much-needed break from research, while giving me some really valuable training for my future career. Having some time away from research helped me step back and breathe a little. Now I feel refreshed and ready to push through the last leg of my graduate training before moving on to becoming a full-fledged science writer. While I was away from the lab, I even worked a bit on my dissertation, which I'm really proud of myself for. Looking at a document with more than 90 pages of text and figures assures me that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer! A new attitude As I look ahead to what will hopefully be my last year in grad school, I'm realizing that I could really use an attitude adjustment. Formerly, I couldn't stop thinking about how much longer I would have to endure being dissatisfied with my job. And that made every day feel like drudgery. This sentiment led me to go on several rants in the past few months all centered around the idea that people should never feel like they need to settle for a job they don't love. While I still am on-par with this line of thinking, I'm becoming more aware that there is another side to that coin: There is something that can be taken away from every experience you have, even (and perhaps especially) the most challenging and difficult ones. That's the attitude I've decided to hold onto as I brace myself for another year of research. It's been about a week, and so far, so good. To give myself little reminders of my new approach to grad school, I've put post-its around my desk. One of them reads, Make the most of every opportunity. I've also taped up a Dove chocolate wrapper, you know, the ones with those cutesy messages on the inside. It reads: Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. I resolve to make the most...

Read More
Jump in and discover what you love
Jul20

Jump in and discover what you love

A few close friends expressed their concerns to me after reading my post about finding your dream job. They said it’s easy to figure out what you want to do when you know who you are. But many people feel stuck trying to figure out who they are. I totally agree. Choosing a career has many parallels to romantic relationship-- it helps to know who you are and what you're looking for in a partner. It's okay to not know yet. It takes time and life experience to discover what you love. But there are practical steps to take to help you along on the road to discovering what you were made for. Mostly, you've got to just jump in and start trying different things. I love how Stephanie Chasteen, also known as sciencegeekgirl on her blog, describes how she “felt” her way into her alternative science career: I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria… do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine. Here are the practical steps I took that led me to discover my passion. Until about a year ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. Research was okay, but I wasn't convinced it was my passion. Then I stumbled across science writing and my ears perked up. After a bit of googling, I found a ton of information and realized there were many possible paths. To narrow down the options, I started testing the waters. I had some experience writing research proposals, so I thought maybe I could become a grant writer. I bought a book that offered tips for writing grants and attended seminars on the topic. I volunteered to help my PI write a grant proposal for my project. All along, I made mental notes to myself about what I liked and didn’t like. I also thought about journal editing. I found an opportunity to be an English editor for an international chemistry journal. It was free labor, but a good experience, nonetheless. I was most intrigued at the thought of doing science journalism, since...

Read More
Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job
Jun28

Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job

My mind went daydreaming today and I got this crazy idea I want to share.  I want everyone reading this blog post, particularly those trying to figure out what to do with their lives, to just take ten minutes to forget about the failing economy, the saturation of the chemistry job market, and all the worries that arise when you wonder how you will support yourself and pay off your loans after you graduate.  Take the next ten minutes to dream— I’m going to guide you through it.  Before you navigate away from this page thinking I’m some kind of nut, please let me explain. I’m going to give you the recipe for figuring out what job you were made for.  In other words, I’m going to help you figure out what kind of job will let you do what you are.  Take a piece of paper and draw lines to create four sections. Or type it out, whatever works.  Causes I am passionate about Activities that get me excited Work environments I thrive in My dream job(s) For sections a through c, write out anything that comes to mind. Be honest and just let it flow.  Now, here is the recipe for your dream job: Think of ways you can work for the causes you're passionate about by doing the activities you love in a work environment you thrive in.  What’s the idea behind all of this? As you learn more about who you are, you can start figuring out what you were made to do.  Here’s the awesome part: You are free to add and remove items from your list as you go through life and learn new things about yourself. Your dream job may change many times as you yourself change and grow. That’s okay, that’s all part of it.  Now, what does this all have to do with alternative careers in science?  A lot, in fact. For example, you might think you’re passion is research because you’re in grad school and that’s what you do and, for the most part, you enjoy it. But as you dig deeper to figure out what drives you, you may find that your root passion is problem solving, or perhaps project management, mentoring, or on a broader scale, working for a noble cause. While you once thought you were limited to a research career, you might find that you could be happy doing anything that allows you to fulfill that inner longing.  So be creative and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. As you open yourself up to careers off the beaten path, you might find that you have...

Read More
Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?
Jun20

Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

Chemistry currently suffers from unemployment issues that stem from there being too many PhDs and not enough jobs. I’d like to open up a can of worms and ask your thoughts on the creation of professionalized postdoc positions in chemistry to address this problem. This idea was proposed in Nature News back in March by Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist trained at University College London. Speaking from her experiences in the life sciences, she argued that academia is broken and would benefit from the creation of permanent, university-funded, long-term research positions, which she termed professionalized postdocs: "To avoid throwing talent on the scrap heap and to boost prospects, a new type of scientific post for researchers is needed… we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone… "The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the 'tournament' model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change… "An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set." In less than three months, this blog post got more than 3,000 comments, with responses varying from raving support to derision. Many commenters agreed the system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. Others agree but feel the system is beyond repair and that the changes proposed are too idealistic. Another camp felt that a makeover in academia would only be possible with major infrastructural changes within universities and funding agencies. It would need to be shown that although full-time permanent research positions are more costly, the money would be well spent: long-term scientists would be two to three times more productive than new grad students or postdocs, and the high turnover rate of talent in a lab would be reduced. Wait a sec, I thought. This sounds an awful lot like a technician or research scientist. Commenters who pointed this out said there is nothing to change since such a position already exists. The key difference, Rohn pointed out in her response to such comments, is that the position would be long-term and not be dependent on the renewal of a grant, resulting in greater job security. Additionally, professionalized postdocs would do original research...

Read More
The beauty of transferable skills: How grad school prepares you for careers off the beaten path
Apr13

The beauty of transferable skills: How grad school prepares you for careers off the beaten path

Let's focus our attention now to one of the things I love about grad school. Believe it or not, I'm not all doom and gloom about all things grad school related. In fact, I would argue that there are far more things I enjoy and love (and will even miss!) about grad school than things I dislike about it. You may doubt me now, especially if you've read my previous posts on how I've fallen out of love with research and have lost interest in an academic career since coming to grad school. But stick with me, I want to prove you otherwise. One of the reasons why I'm almost certain I won't regret finishing my Ph.D. (despite the fact that I don't actually really need it to do what I want to do!) is this: I'm going to come away from this program after 5+ long years with so much more than those three coveted letters after my last name. I'll be taking along with me a boat-load of skills. Major skills. Mad skills, I might even say. No, I'm not talking about lab skills, like being able to align a laser, pipette with extreme accuracy, or isolate leukocytes from whole blood. (Those skills are far from useful when it comes to being a science writer, which is my non-traditional career of choice). I'm talking about the skills that were gained when you were faced head-on with challenges and didn't quit. When you went through ups and downs and wondered why you were subjecting yourself to such misery, and yet persevered. Diligence. Focus. The ability to fearlessly dive into new research areas, critically read journal articles, work on a team, and talk about science to a variety of audiences. Those skills that are transferable. Ahh, transferrrable skills. That's what this is all about. These skills are things that you may not realize you are acquiring day to day, but when you look back over a period of months and years, you realize that you've grown. (Has anyone else ever looked back and read their grad school personal statement from four years back and cringed? Umm, yeah, I've definitely grown as a writer!) I have to preface the rest of this post by saying that I wrote this as a charge to grad students, but really the principles extend to those scientists who work lab jobs and teaching jobs as well. I just chose to tailor this message to my fellow grad students, but for everyone else out there, I encourage you see beyond the specifics to the principles that may apply to your current situation. So, to all...

Read More
Academia vs. Alternative Science Careers—What’s the deal?
Mar29

Academia vs. Alternative Science Careers—What’s the deal?

“Bart, don’t make fun of grad students, they just made a terrible life choice.” –Marge Simpson This post is an outpouring of my thoughts and feelings about the whole “academia vs. alternative career” dilemma, arranged into lists to make them appear to have some level of organization. Take a look and let me know what you think! Alternative careers aside, what are some of the things that make grad students decide against academia (anything but academia!): I got caught in a bad project and want out… forever. (♪ “I want good data and a paper in Cell but I got a project straight from hell… whoa oh ohhhhh, caught in a bad project.” ♫) Great, now I have that song stuck in my head. I may not have had a bad project but my labmates were such meanies that I developed an aversion to all things research. (What, you mean it wasn’t funny when we wrapped all the items on your desk in foil and filled your desk drawers with packing peanuts when you were gone on vacation?) I married rich and will live off the income of my sugar-spouse. I like my life too much to sign it all away to the ever-growing list of academic responsibilities: research, grant writing, teaching, administrative stuff, meetings, recruiting, advising, group meetings, subgroup meetings, one-on-one meetings, conferences, writing papers (publish or perish!) and frequent world travel. Exciting for a single person without kids, not so much for someone who wants to actually see their spouse/family on occasion. I don’t want to put in ten years of schooling to get a job making marginally more per hour than the average person. I want to actually have kids before their child-bearing abilities have left me without a trace. I know, you can have kids before tenure, but from what I hear it makes it a lot harder (not surprising), especially if you don’t have a stay-at-home spouse. I don’t want to give up all my other hobbies forever and ever in the name of being a hard-core academic. Which leads me to… what’s the appeal of an “alternative career” in science? Working a job that you love and that combines multiple interests and passions into one (i.e. science and writing, medicine and art, technology and law, you get my drift). Having an 8-to-5 job so that you can make time for the rest of your life. All those hobbies that got put on hold when grad school happened, you can get them back again! The option of moving around. You have heard it said that once you leave academia it’s hard to come back...

Read More